Hello? Australia, are you there? Can you hear me? I completely forgot about you and your wines!
And so did a whole lot of others.
In Australian wine’s heyday, stores couldn’t keep up with the demand we had for deep and inky Barossa Valley shirazes and Coonawarra cabernets. Inexpensive wines with full-throttle flavors and cheeky names sent Americans into a frenzy. It was the height of bigger-is-better wines—and Australia was at the top of the heap.
And then … it all stopped. All of a sudden, no one was looking for those cute little labels with the koalas, or the kangaroos, or the little penguins on them. It was as if it happened overnight. Americans woke up one morning with complete Australia amnesia.
Of course, it didn’t help that there was a new kid in town. The Aussie shiraz lovers looking for a juicy, high-octane red that was less than $10 a bottle were quickly enamored by a grape they’d never had, from a region they knew little about: Malbec, from Argentina, was the new darling of the dollar store.
I got to thinking about how Australia’s wines fell from grace so quickly and so completely. It turns out that while we were busy finding our next new wine obsession, Australia was dealing with crippling drought and scorched vineyards—while at the same time trying to manage massive overproduction. The business sides of these endeavors had been so focused on catering to the fickle U.S. and British markets that they abandoned their own domestic drinkers. From a sommelier perspective, the over-extracted, alcoholic beasts that commanded a huge price tag were the last things I would recommend to pair with someone’s dinner. Wine experts began to favor lighter, more-food-friendly options. The perception of Australian wines was that they’d become a one-trick pony, and that one trick just wasn’t doing it anymore. The very attribute that shot Australian wine into superstardom was the very thing that turned around and shot them in their foot.
So, whatcha been doin’ for the last decade, Australia?
Turns out Australia has been very, very busy. There is an exciting new wave of winemakers, with a focus on natural wines, organic wines, biodynamic farming and experimentation with European varietals. Lower alcohol levels, a lighter touch with oak aging, and grapes that are better-suited for the changing climate are all contributing to this Phoenix rising from the proverbial ashes. Australian wine-makers have been steadily gaining traction with their own domestic fans—and subsequently turning the heads of millennials (that is, once they look up from their iPhones) who previously scoffed at the wines from Down Under. What’s more, there is a booming wine scene in the urban sprawls of Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane, where wine bars and sommelier-led bottle shops are popping up in support of their home-grown wines.
In the last six months, I’ve tasted more great wines from Australia than I had in my entire career up to that point—wines like Brash Higgins Amphora Project Nero d’Avola from the McLaren Vale; Robert Oatley’s rose of sangiovese from Mudgee; Frankland Estate riesling; and a truly exceptional pinot noir from Moorooduc Estate.
I was introduced to the wines of Patrick Sullivan and his unbelievably fresh and thirst-quenching Jumpin’ Juice Sunset, a blend of skin-fermented sauvignon blanc (aka orange wine) and cabernet sauvignon. Wait … what?! Did I hear that right? Yup, and it is quite literally the color of a Sedona sunset, with flavors of crunchy red raspberries, tangy Mandarin oranges and pink lemonade; you almost forget this is a wine and not a glass of freshly squeezed something or other.
I also had the insane pleasure of tasting the Mac Forbes wines. This guy is a pioneer in the Yarra Valley and makes some of the most beautiful, elegant, silky and expressive pinot noirs and chardonnays I’ve ever tasted. The cool hills of the Yarra Valley are the perfect canvas for his grapes, and you really get a sense of place when you stick your nose in the glass. Mark my words: He will become known as one of the greatest winemakers in Australia.
The beauty of this diverse wine country is that the hidden gems aren’t really hidden at all. Producers like Yalumba, Tyrrell’s, Henschke and Tahbilk have been producing wines of uncompromising quality, balance and elegance for more than 100 years. These are wineries that have stayed true to their roots, crafting wines that perhaps didn’t fit the fad 10 years ago, but continue to stand the test of time. Along with seven other wineries, these producers make up Australia’s First Families of Wine, a collaboration of generations of wine experience with people who are looking to change the negative narrative about this region and its blunders, and put the spotlight back where it belongs—on tradition, not trends.
If you’ve never had Tahbilk’s 1927 Vines Marsanne—from some of the oldest Marsanne plantings in the world—or Yalumbas’ stunning Roussanne or iconic cabernet-shiraz blend called The Caley, or Tyrrell’s Old Patch shiraz, coming from a single vineyard planted in 1867, one could argue you’ve haven’t really tasted Australian wine.
So while you’re sitting at home contemplating what to do with yourself now that everything is closed again, why not reintroduce yourself to Australia? Explore your local wine shop for an interesting bottle (or two) you’ve never had before. See what a decade of reinvention looks like.
It’s been a while, Australia. I’ve missed you. Thanks for answering the call.
Katie Finn is a certified sommelier and certified specialist of wine with two decades in the wine industry. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.